Last week Jordan Neely was killed on a New York City subway when a bystander “approached Mr. Neely, put him in a chokehold, and held him until he became limp.” [New York Times]
In Kansas City (Ralph Yarl), New York (Kaylin Gillis), and Atlanta (Heather Roth and Payton Washington) people (notably young people in these examples) have been shot for ringing the wrong doorbell, using the wrong driveway or getting into the wrong car.
There are countless little and big reasons for these events. But in many ways they’re the product of systemic fear and trauma that dehumanizes the people around us.
We’re also living through a pandemic that has killed over a million Americans and continues to have long-term impacts. Climate change is scaling up the reach of natural disasters.
And we live with distraction. Stories about all this. Debates over cause and motive leave little time to focus and little energy with which to be well.
An aside: I write this knowing I’m not mentioning incidents to what happened in the past 10 days in Allen, Texas or Cleveland, Texas or Brownsville, Texas. Those are tragedies. Perhaps greater ones. It’s doubly tragic that we need a language to convey value or gauge impact of these events. How do we write of any of this when there is so much of it?
Recognize the Impact of Trauma
Does it make sense for communities and organizations to better recognize and address the role trauma is playing and will play in lives of their supporters, staff and broader community?
Like it or not, our donors, members and email lists are made up of people constantly struggling with climate disaster, gun violence, inequality and pandemics. There’s a lot of talk about drops in individual giving. Falls (and rises) in giving are most always associated with “the economy.” Perhaps trauma, fear and dehumanization drive people to withdraw from community engagement and membership.
Tying fundraising results and strategies to economic indicators makes sense. But it limits our view of what’s happening and what’s possible.
We can’t only optimize our recruitment, fundraising and testing for those with financial and other forms of security. These audiences will lead us towards policies and politics that favor the fortunate, preserve power and aren’t interested in systemic problems. These are also audiences that may continue to shrink. One can only evade the sources of trauma for so long.
Organizations should also question their role in creating instead of healing trauma. Crisis-driven messaging dominates advocacy and fundraising communications of groups doing wonderful environmental, human rights and social justice work, including those organizing and working alongside communities.
Our communities, supporters and staff need us to both recognize, solve for and support trauma. That’s a big ask. One far greater than the remit of many (most) nonprofits.
Fortunately, there are models, partners and opportunities to do more of this work and do it better.
The pandemic taught us that organizations can engage in community support beyond our mission.
A team of researchers from the University of California at San Diego and the city of Los Angeles looked at developing trauma resilient communities through community capacity-building in 2021. The team recognized the impact weather disasters and the pandemic had on the ability of communities to feed and shelter people. Over time, these and other events wear down community resiliency.
They found correlation between trauma informed community practices and community health.
We found that capacity-building among community-based partnerships is effective at disseminating trauma-informed education and training, conducting outreach and engagement, linking community members with resources, and increasing help-seeking and social connectedness by community members.
Community capacity to recognize and address trauma will build stronger communities. It may also address fear and our ability to address inequality and justice.
…is community capacity-building a foundational competency that can mitigate the impact of natural disasters such as earthquakes, fires and flooding or future acts of social injustice?
So why don’t more organizations speak openly about trauma? I think it has such a systemic presence that no group, assuming they acknowledge it at all, sees how they can address it.
Prioritize Novel Community Collaboration
We can debate the causes of inflation and a turn towards austerity-based policies by both parties. But the situation on the ground is that housing, food and job insecurity (or the loss of all three) affects Americans everywhere. Tim Garvin, director of the United Way of Central Massachusetts, recently wrote about the situation in Worcester and the need to remember lessons in community collaboration learned during COVID. The community formed a working group called Worcester Together in March, 2020, and it continues to collaborate:
Worcester Together continues to meet, 1,148 days and counting. It has evolved into a place where observations, news and data are shared, all focused on working together for the good of the community.
Look, I’m no expert on trauma-informed practices. But I do know that offering people resources, support and training to meet their needs best done through community, not individual, practices. And a resilient community, one whose members can rely on and trust one another, is not just able to weather crisis but is also more likely to engage in and support democratic processes.
The rush to community-level innovation we saw in 2020-21 was driven by radical uncertainty. Suddenly, everyone was working remotely. Suddenly, everyone sought ways to provide food and housing assistance. Scott Warren, former CEO of Generation Citizen, wrote about creative collaboration and groups sharing resources for the first time.
But crises wane even if the underlying structures are weakened. Typically, there is little incentive for organizations (or their funders) to invest in or test new collaborations and community building.
I recently spoke to a colleague who spent 18 months piloting sustainable engagement with rural and small community residents who have a social media presence. The goal is to support climate-positive conversation in places that typically only hear and see climate stories from right-leaning TV, radio and social media sources. It’s sensible, not radical, work. But it takes time and isn’t a project that fits neatly into the boxes and sectors into which funders and organizations operate.
Perhaps we’re seeing a shift towards trauma-informed community capacity building. There are efforts to measure community stress and address trauma in educational settings.
But I wonder how (even if) we can prioritize new models of collaboration across disciplines and issues. Can donors, funders and organizations share learning, skills and resources to build community capacity, resilience and relationships to address trauma and instill trust, hope and love instead of fear? If so it may be one way to protect not just our communities but democracy itself.